A little more than a year has passed since protesters defied pandemic quarantine orders and spilled into Boston streets, decrying racism and police brutality and calling for "defunding" the Boston Police Department.
Now, with about a month to go until the city's Sept. 14 preliminary election, most mayoral candidates have narrowed their focus to improving the Boston Police Department's response to mental health crises cases. Only one, city councilor Andrea Campbell, is charging full-steam-ahead with a plan to restructure the department and reduce its budget by $50 million, about 12.5% of this year's allocation.
"I would invest that in mental health supports addressing trauma, moving people out of poverty, investing in our education," she said in a recent interview with GBH News, "and, of course, other community-based organizations that have been doing the work to solve and intervene and prevent violence in the first place."
To achieve the savings, Campbell would eliminate the four-hour overtime minimum — a contract provision that dates back to the late 1960s. As mayor, Campbell would transfer certain duties like construction details to civilians, scale back the Boston Regional Intelligence Center and eliminate the gang and bike units.
The long-standing overtime minimum would be subject to collective bargaining. The practice is at the center of the city's overtime fraud scandal.
When compared with the other major candidates in the race, Campbell's stance places her furthest to the left on police reform.
While advocates say political momentum for broad police reform might appear to be losing steam, polling suggests broad support remains for shifting funding from police, meaning it could still prove to be an important issue in the mayor's race.
"As much as people focus on polls showing that the slogan 'defund the police' does not win majority support in most places, those same polls often show that when people are asked whether they're in favor of redistributing money away from the police department and towards other services like education, health care, housing, or community based mental health services, often most people are in support of that," said Jocelyn Simonson, law professor and expert in criminal justice reform.
A recent survey from Suffolk University and the Boston Globe suggests as much. "Police reform" ranked sixth on the important issues list, with only about 6% of likely voters indicating it as the thing that will affect their vote. However, 60% of those same likely voters expressed support for the idea of "cutting some funding from the police and using the money for social services," like helping the homeless and the mentally ill.
It's a novel public conversation, Simonson said, and a direct result of last year's protests and organizing.
"Now, when a politician says 'I believe in public safety,' you have to stop and ask them, 'how would you promote public safety? Would you do it through the police or would you do it through community-based services that don't involve the police?'" she said.
Campbell has made her family's interaction with the criminal justice system a central part of her campaign.
Her mother died in a car accident on her way to see Andrea's father in prison. Her twin brother, Andre, died in state custody as a pretrial detainee. And, though she has not discussed it on the campaign trail, her eldest brother, Alvin, is accused of posing as a rideshare driver and sexually assaulting women. He is currently being held without bail and faces nine charges of rape.
Coupling that life story with police reform as a defining issue for her campaign, Campbell is banking on her restructuring and reallocation plan to capture some of that broad support seen in polling.
The strategy frequently places Campbell in direct opposition to Acting Mayor Kim Janey, the second Black woman in the race who has emphasized a similar dedication to police reform and wields the advantage of pseudo incumbency.
Janey, however, has recently suffered criticism from the city's police reform activists over her city budget, which passed in June.
Despite calls for less officers and a 10 to 30% reduction to police funding, this year's budget added officers to the force — a move Janey's administration has said is key to reducing BPD overtime — and reduced the police budget by less than 5% to about $400 million.
Last year, before she assumed the interim mayor role, Janey penned a letter to then-mayor Marty Walsh asking him to take a long list of actions, including a 10% reduction of the BPD budget.
Janey was not available for an interview with GBH News last week, but she showed the political power of the acting mayor's seat when she released a trio of recommendations from the city's police accountability office after it reviewed the Boston Police Department's handling of the case of Patrick Rose, a former police union head who remained on the force for 20 years after a credible child abuse allegation was brought against him. Rose is now facing nearly three dozen counts of abuse stemming from the allegations of six people.
The public safety section of Janey's campaign website also highlights other actions she has taken while holding the mayor's seat, rather than aspirational plans.
Murphy Nau of Allston was one of about 30 people who spoke in favor of the police reduction before the Boston City Council finalized the budget. Nau said the spending plan made her disappointed in Janey, to the point she began looking at other candidates, like Campbell.
"I did lose some of my respect for her when she really failed to deliver on a lot of really strong language and promises that she made the year before," Nau said of Janey. "I understand [Janey] is running for re-election, but at the same time, this delivered on almost none of her promises to cut back on police spending."
Carlton E. Williams, a civil rights and social justice attorney who votes in Boston, said her budget was like "a big middle finger" to the organizations that wanted a cut.
"I think that will certainly affect her votes," said Williams, predicting there are more voters like Nau, now exploring other candidates. "I think [Janey] probably thought 'this will get me more votes.' I think it will get her less."
Mayoral candidate John Barros, the city's former economic development chief, said the pro-reallocation stance is an ill-advised one.
"It would be irresponsible for me to say my number is 'X' without really talking about what we're trying to get to," Barros told GBH News when asked for clarification about his position on moving money from police to social services.
Barros, who has indicated support for moving money from police in the past, said his top police reform priority as mayor would be to create a new emergency agency for responding to mental health calls.
The move, he said, would lessen demand for police and, eventually, relieve pressure on police budget itself.
"There's no question about it in my mind, as we put more money in the root causes of crime, as we invest in a new public agency that has [mental health] professionals, that, in fact, there's an opportunity to reallocate money. But, I don't start there," Barros said. "The end result is having safety [and] healthy communities."
Barros added that he would also implement the entire list of recommendations produced last year by former mayor Marty Walsh's police reform task force. His first priority from that list, he said, would be establishing the civilian review board within the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, a step Janey has moved to take.
At-Large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who has consistently rejected calls for reallocating police funding and has emerged as the preferred candidate for public safety unions, said in a GBH News interview that her Day One police reform would be establishing a police command staff and recruiting a new police commissioner, that would "fulfill the commitment of community policing."
Essaibi George's public safety plan also contains a unique proposal to mandate two mental health professionals and two licensed social workers in each of the city's 11 police districts, a move she said would cost about $30 million and could be financed via federal pandemic relief funds.
"We know ten thousand calls a year for emotionally disturbed persons get processed through the 9-1-1 system," Essaibi George said.
"Many of these individuals who are high utilizers of the system need access to stable housing, need perhaps some mental health supports and ongoing supports, perhaps outpatient or inpatient," she added. "There are services available that we need to make sure that our city's residents, especially those that are most vulnerable, can access."
Wu, the race's consistent front-runner, has a slightly different approach to improving the force's crisis response — she would embed changes into the city's police contract. These, like some of Campbell's proposals, would be subject to collective bargaining.
"It's often the riskiest interaction that that we see across policing and with community. It's also fundamental to how we are using our resources," she told GBH News, pointing to times she looked on fearfully as her mother interacted with police while in the midst of a mental health crisis.
Wu's plan calls for creating alternative responses to nonviolent incidents — like homelessness, substance use and mental health emergencies — that can be coordinated through 9-1-1 calls. The alternative responses would be managed by the city's Health and Human Services cabinet.
Wu told GBH News the very first action she said she'd pursue as mayor, though, would be to kick off a community process to find Boston's next police commissioner, someone she said should be "prepared to rebuild trust with the community," and deliver on the reforms proposed within her plan.
With the exception of COVID-19 response, police reform is perhaps the most fluid of the major issues, making their stances on the issue subject to change should an unforseen event occure.